2 April 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next week highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

I Am a Japanese Writer by Dany LaFerrière, translated by David Homel

Language: French

Country: Haiti/Canada
Publisher: Douglas & McIntyre

Why This Book Should Win: On one level this is a calmly experimental and defiant novel that dismisses the label “world literature” as a cheap marketing ploy. It’s also a loving reminiscence of formative readings experiences that continue to haunt and fuel the writer’s life.

Today’s post is by Matthew Jakubowski, a writer and literary journalist who’s written for Bookforum, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, The Quarterly Conversation, Barrelhouse, and BOMB. He lives in West Philadelphia.

Laferrière fled to Montreal from Haiti during the Duvalier regime after some of his fellow journalists were killed. Throughout his career, he’s refused to let race or nationality define him or his work and I Am a Japanese Writer, blends fiction and autobiography as its writer-narrator, also a black writer from Haiti living in Montreal, causes a small international incident after he tells his publisher his new novel, which he has yet to start writing, will be called I Am a Japanese Writer.

I made a case for this potent little novel in my positive review for The National, a book which Laferrière dedicates to “everyone who would like to be someone else.” This phrase is meant somewhat literally, in that it’s directed at book lovers, implying that in Laferrière’s view we read with the silent hope or expectation that at some point we forget our own life and have the chance to feel like someone else.

One of the best aspects of this book is the comforting rhythm and ease with which Laferrière assembles an increasingly madcap plot and various digressions about his writing career, switching perspectives and tone so easily and assuredly that after the first few short chapters it doesn’t matter what aspects are true or completely invented.

The result is a funny yet sharp and experimental novel that meanders with purpose, intercut with memories from the narrator’s early life in Haiti, and riffs on the influence of Basho, Borges, and Baudrillard.

The plot’s fairly simple: pressed for time, the writer throws out a crazy book title to his publisher, who loves it and cuts the writer a check, who leaves the office laughing. Complications follow as the writer tries to research the book, and things get out of hand when a Japanese consul tries to intervene.

But the writer’s joke on his publisher turns out not to be a joke, because he says, “I really do consider myself a Japanese writer.” But how can a Haitian writer living in Montreal claim to be Japanese? Eventually, Laferrière gives one form of answer: “Years later, when I became a writer and people asked me, ‘Are you a Haitian writer, a Caribbean writer, or a French language writer?’ I answered without hesitation: ‘I take on my reader’s nationality. Which means that when a Japanese person reads me, I immediately become a Japanese writer.’”

At another point, he elaborates on this idea: “Born in the Caribbean, I automatically became a Caribbean writer. The bookstore, the library and the university rushed to pin that title on me. Being a writer and a Caribbean doesn’t necessarily make me a Caribbean writer . . . Actually, I don’t feel any more Caribbean than Proust, who spent his life in bed. I spent my childhood running. That fluid sense of time still lives in me.”

Writing like this kept me reading and loving this book, wondering about what happens to the self during the time that we read, and what becomes of us later on as we remember and keep reassembling those memories of books we loved.

25 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by contributing reviewer Larissa Kyzer on Jacques Poulin’s Mister Blue, which just came out from Archipelago Books in Sheila Fischman’s translation.

Larissa Kyzer is a regular reviewer for us who has a great interest in all things Scandinavian and Icelandic. Mister Blue doesn’t quite fit that, but it does sound like a really fun book:

The fictional world of Québécois novelist Jacques Poulin can, poetically speaking, be likened to a snow globe: a minutely-detailed landscape peppered with characters who appear to be frozen in one lovely, continuous moment. Mister Blue, recently published in a new English translation, captures this timelessness in a fluid and deceptively simple story about the complex bonds that can develop between completely unlike people, if only they are allowed to.

Brooklyn’s Archipelago Books has previously released two Poulin novels—Spring Tides and Translation is a Love Affair—both of which share some basic fundamentals with Mister Blue. Each of these slender novels feature reclusive literary types (authors and translators), their beloved cats (all with names worthy of T.S. Eliot’s Practical Cats: Matousalem, Mr. Blue, Charade, Vitamin), and enigmatic strangers who quickly insinuate themselves into the lives and imaginations of the aforementioned writers. But although Poulin frequently returns to the same themes, the same hyper-specific scenarios and characters in his work, each of his novels retain a freshness and idiosyncratic sweetness that reward readers with small revelations and happy coincidences.

Click here to read the entire piece.

25 January 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The fictional world of Québécois novelist Jacques Poulin can, poetically speaking, be likened to a snow globe: a minutely-detailed landscape peppered with characters who appear to be frozen in one lovely, continuous moment. Mister Blue, recently published in a new English translation, captures this timelessness in a fluid and deceptively simple story about the complex bonds that can develop between completely unlike people, if only they are allowed to.

Brooklyn’s Archipelago Books has previously released two Poulin novels—Spring Tides and Translation is a Love Affair—both of which share some basic fundamentals with Mister Blue. Each of these slender novels feature reclusive literary types (authors and translators), their beloved cats (all with names worthy of T.S. Eliot’s Practical Cats: Matousalem, Mr. Blue, Charade, Vitamin), and enigmatic strangers who quickly insinuate themselves into the lives and imaginations of the aforementioned writers. But although Poulin frequently returns to the same themes, the same hyper-specific scenarios and characters in his work, each of his novels retain a freshness and idiosyncratic sweetness that reward readers with small revelations and happy coincidences.

Mister Blue opens on Jim, “the slowest writer in Quebec,” a former Hemingway scholar turned full-time novelist who now summers in his dilapidated childhood home, a ramshackle cottage in a quiet, uninhabited bay on the Ile d’Orleans. Jim’s daily writing follows a quiet routine with little to punctuate it other than semi-regular tennis matches with his brother, feeding and tending to his cats and the scrappy strays that invite themselves into his home, and solitary walks on the beach in front of his home. It is on just such a walk that Jim discovers footprints in the sand leading to a cave where someone has been camping. Finding a copy of The Arabian Nights in the cave with the name “Marie K.” written on the flyleaf, Jim becomes instantly besotted with this mysterious unseen stranger, whom he nicknames Marika.

Here, as in Translation is a Love Affair, real life quickly begins to intermingle with fiction and vice-versa. For Poulin’s characters, life itself is a process of composition, improvised and redrafted as unforeseen events take place. As Jim struggles to write a love story, he becomes convinced that his authorial problems can all be chalked up to the fact that he has ignored Hemingway’s rule: “a writer must stick to the subject he knows best.” He surmises that his story has stalled because “I was trying to write a love story without being in love myself.” Ergo, he whimsically decides, he must “take a closer interest in that person named Marika.”

But matters of the heart, much like matters of fiction, are not so easily constructed. Instead of meeting Marika, he meets a woman named Bungalow, a former housewife who left her “gilded cage” to run a shelter for young women in Old Quebec, and La Petite, who lives at the shelter but increasingly becomes a regular visitor at Jim’s cottage. The arrival of these two women takes both Jim’s fictional and real life love stories off course: the mysterious Marika continues to elude him, and obstinately, his fictional characters become friends instead of lovers, despite his frequent attempts to revise their relationship. The romantic story that he set out to write (and to live) gives way, ever so slowly, to a gentler, more protective, tender kind of love—that between himself and the curious, lovable, but often volatile La Petite—the love between a parent and child.

In simple, clean prose (musically rendered in Sheila Fischman’s translation) Poulin delivers his bittersweet tale with a restraint that belies true joy, the dogged optimism that complete strangers from totally different backgrounds and circumstances can find in each other real empathy and kindness. That such connections are right there in front of us, if only we trouble to look for them.
“What matters are the emotional ties that connect people and form a vast, invisible web without which the world would crumble,” Jim realizes. “Everything else to which people devote the greater part of their time, looking very serious as they do so, is of only minor importance.”

17 November 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Will Eells on Dany LaFerrière’s I Am a Japanese Writer, which is translated from the French by David Hormel and available from Douglas & MacIntyre.

Will—who got a certificate in literary translation from the U of R and focuses on Japanese lit—is one of our contributing reviewers. You can read all of his pieces by clicking here.

Dany LaFerrière is an author I’ve been interested in checking out for a while, in part because his book titles are so strange and provocative. (The last novel of his to be translated was How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired.) May be way off base here, but based on the descriptions, his work brings to mind the novels of Percival Everett. All the novels sound fun, playful, interested in identity and race and nationality, etc.

Anyway, for more info on LaFerrière, be sure to check out this interview that just went up at Words Without Borders. And here’s the opening of Will’s review:

As we progress further into the 21st century, it is almost baffling that human beings still put so much stock into race and/or nationality. Because it is getting confusing.

Perhaps 200 years ago, when the only human beings you had a chance of producing offspring with lived in a fifty-mile radius, it made sense to identify with people of a certain place or look. I am from here, these are my people; those are the others. But these days, trying to identify in such terms often leads only to bewilderment and oversimplifications. I had this one friend in high school. He was half-Thai and half-Bulgarian, but he was born in Japan and grew up there until he went to high school and college in America. What does he consider himself? What do others consider him? How does he see himself? Where is he from? Does it even matter to him? When the answers are this complicated, do the questions themselves mean anything anymore?

These are some of the issues that Dany LaFerrière addresses in I Am a Japanese Writer, his latest novel to be translated into English. I Am a Japanese Writer is about a black writer in Montreal who sells his latest book to his publisher based on the title alone—I Am a Japanese Writer. So does it mean anything to the reader to know that Dany LaFerrière is, in fact, a black writer living in Montreal who has written a book called I Am a Japanese Writer?

What we have here is not a memoir, of course, but a meta-fictional vehicle in which to explore issues of racial and national identity.

Click here to check out the whole thing.

17 November 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As we progress further into the 21st century, it is almost baffling that human beings still put so much stock into race and/or nationality. Because it is getting confusing.

Perhaps 200 years ago, when the only human beings you had a chance of producing offspring with lived in a fifty-mile radius, it made sense to identify with people of a certain place or look. I am from here, these are my people; those are the others. But these days, trying to identify in such terms often leads only to bewilderment and oversimplifications. I had this one friend in high school. He was half-Thai and half-Bulgarian, but he was born in Japan and grew up there until he went to high school and college in America. What does he consider himself? What do others consider him? How does he see himself? Where is he from? Does it even matter to him? When the answers are this complicated, do the questions themselves mean anything anymore?

These are some of the issues that Dany LaFerrière addresses in I Am a Japanese Writer, his latest novel to be translated into English. I Am a Japanese Writer is about a black writer in Montreal who sells his latest book to his publisher based on the title alone—I Am a Japanese Writer. So does it mean anything to the reader to know that Dany LaFerrière is, in fact, a black writer living in Montreal who has written a book called I Am a Japanese Writer?

What we have here is not a memoir, of course, but a meta-fictional vehicle in which to explore issues of racial and national identity. The novel begins with the unnamed narrator getting a call from his publisher looking for the next book in the narrator’s contract. The narrator has no such next book, and looking at all the junk littering his editor’s desk, he pulls a title out of his head: I Am a Japanese Writer. His publisher loves it, but to the narrator it’s nothing special at all, telling the reader: “It was pretty banal, actually—except for the word ‘Japanese.’ And that was no joke: I really do consider myself a Japanese writer.” He starts telling people randomly on the street about how he is a Japanese writer:

On my way out, just to gauge his reaction, I tell him, “I am a Japanese writer.”

His eyes cut back to me.

“How’s that? You changed nationality?”

“No. That’s the title of my new book.”

A worried glance at his assistant, a young man busy wrapping fish. My fishman never looks at the person he’s speaking to.

“Do you have the right?”

“To write the book?”

“No. To say you’re Japanese.”

“I don’t know.”

“Are you going to change your nationality?”

“No way . . . I already did that once, that’s enough.”

“We should find out about that.”

“Where?”

“I don’t know, at the Japanese embassy . . . Can you imagine me waking up one morning and telling my customers I’m a Polish butcher?”

“I’d think you’d be a Polish fishman, since you’re in fish.”

“Anything but a Polish fishman,” he answers, turning back to the next customer.

The rest of the novel follows the narrator doing everything except writing the book. He constantly is reading the Japanese poet Basho or evading his landlord. He befriends a Japanese musician named Midori and her entourage, even getting mixed up in one of their suicides. But even so, word spreads of his latest book until it causes an uproar in Japan. Members of the Japanese embassy start visiting him to help him go to Japan, learn about it, so as to better write his book, but as the fervor for his book grows more and more intense, the narrator becomes increasingly desperate to escape the attention.

I Am a Japanese Writer is written almost like a noir—the tone is dark, and the plot almost Kafkaesque in its gritty lunacy. David Homel deserves credit for his excellent translation in keeping the tone of the work consistent and for rendering various cultural nuances and artifacts clear and recognizable in American English. But the novel is at the same time incredibly fun to read, with an absurdism that makes the novel both incredibly funny and at the same time nightmarish. What else is there to do but utter a bewildered laugh when a character named Haruki Murakami, the same name as the most popular and famous Japanese writer in recent memory, is a black, gay New Yorker?

It is a recurring element throughout the novel: nearly every Japanese person in the book, regardless of who they are or what they do, is named after a famous Japanese writer or cultural figure. In fact, all cultures and peoples in the novel are portrayed using the most obvious clichés and stereotypes. For as the narrator himself tells us, “the problem with being a foreigner is that you’re not allowed to play anything but folklore.”

By using these deliberately clichéd elements, I Am a Japanese Writer offers an amusing and very readable analysis on the flimsiness of racial identity, and illustrates the power literature has to transcend ideas of race. The ideas would work well without them, but the meta-fictional games LaFerrière uses bring a whole new depth and clarity to his arguments. As the narrator describes reading Mishima as a teenager:

I dove into the universe set before me the way I dove into the little river not far from my house. I hardly even noticed his name, and it wasn’t until long afterward that I realized he was Japanese. At the time, I firmly believed that writers formed a lost tribe and spent their lives wandering the world and telling stories in all languages. That was their sentence for some unnamable crime . . .

I don’t understand all the attention paid to a writer’s origins. Because, for me, Mishima was my neighbor. Very naturally, I repatriated the writers I read at the time. All of them. Flaubert, Goethe, Whitman, Shakespeare, Lope de Vega, Cervantes, Kipling, Senghor, Cesaire, Roumain, Amado, Diderot—they all lived in my village. Otherwise, what were they doing in my room? Years later, when I became a writer and people asked me, “are you a Haitian writer, a Caribbean writer or a French-language writer? I answered without hesitation: I take on my reader’s nationality. Which means that when a Japanese person reads me, I immediately become a Japanese writer.

23 November 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece that I wrote on Jacques Poulin’s Translation Is a Love Affair, which was recently published by Archipelago Books. (A Three Percent favorite.)

I wasn’t overwhelmed by the novel itself, but translator Sheila Fischman deserves a ton of credit for all she’s done:

One of the most interesting facets of Translation Is a Love Affair is the brief bio on Sheila Fischman:

Sheila Fischman has published more than 125 translations of contemporary French-Canadian novels including works by Jacques Poulin, Francois Gravel, Anne Hebert, Marie-Claire Blais, Michel Tremblay, and Gaetan Soucy. In 2002, Fischman was named to the Order of Canada in recognition of the quality of her translations and unparalleled contribution to Canadian culture.

One hundred and twenty-five translations!?!? I knew she was an important Canadian translator, but this is Herculean. And tying this into our Making the Translator Visible series, not only is Fischman relatively invisible, but outside of Canada, Quebecois literature tends to be pretty invisible as well. I’ll go out on a limb here and state that very few people reading this have read works by more that two of the authors named in her bio.

Which is unfortunate for all sorts of reasons—like the fact that Quebec borders the U.S. and has a rich cultural history and yet is essentially ignored by U.S. publishers—but not really the point of this review.

What’s is the point of this review is the role that translation plays in this not entirely successful novel. In terms of the plot itself, translation is key: this novel is narrated by Marine, a young female translator who is close friends with Monsieur Waterman, a famous author whose work she translates. Although the title might suggest some sort of coupling between them, this isn’t really that sort of book. Instead, the two get involved in a quasi-mystery involving a young girl, a older woman, and a stray black cat with an S.O.S. message affixed to his collar.

Click here to read the full review.

23 November 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

One of the most interesting facets of Translation Is a Love Affair is the brief bio on Sheila Fischman:

Sheila Fischman has published more than 125 translations of contemporary French-Canadian novels including works by Jacques Poulin, Francois Gravel, Anne Hebert, Marie-Claire Blais, Michel Tremblay, and Gaetan Soucy. In 2002, Fischman was named to the Order of Canada in recognition of the quality of her translations and unparalleled contribution to Canadian culture.

One hundred and twenty-five translations!?!? I knew she was an important Canadian translator, but this is Herculean. And tying this into our Making the Translator Visible series, not only is Fischman relatively invisible, but outside of Canada, Quebecois literature tends to be pretty invisible as well. I’ll go out on a limb here and state that very few people reading this have read works by more that two of the authors named in her bio.

Which is unfortunate for all sorts of reasons—like the fact that Quebec borders the U.S. and has a rich cultural history and yet is essentially ignored by U.S. publishers—but that’s not really the point of this review.

What is the point of this review is the role that translation plays in this not entirely successful novel. In terms of the plot itself, translation is key: this novel is narrated by Marine, a young female translator who is close friends with Monsieur Waterman, a famous author whose work she translates. Although the title might suggest some sort of coupling between them, this isn’t really that sort of book. Instead, the two get involved in a quasi-mystery involving a young girl, a older woman, and a stray black cat with an S.O.S. message affixed to his collar.

The plot is slight, the pacing uneven, and the narrators voice a bit cloying, but nevertheless, there are some interesting facets to this book, if not necessarily for literary value, but to bring up translation craft related questions. For instance, there’s this bit from a conversation between Marine and her young neighbor:

“Why do you pull out the weeds?”

“Because the water is sticky, poisseuse.

“Does that mean there’s too many fish, poissons?”

I gave her a sidelong glance to see if she was joking, but she wasn’t.

Poisseuse means that the water is a little sticky. I could have said collante. Do you see what I mean?’

Well, maybe. How to translate wordplay like this is an eternal ALTA panel, and in this case, the only way to retain any of the verbal confusion is to keep the French for “sticky” and “fish” in French. The explanation—simply providing a French synonym for “sticky”—falls a bit flat, and is indicative of this novel as a whole.

But for people interested in translation, this book does have its minor joys. There’s a bit in which Marine (who is described obliquely, but in a very sensual, male-fantasy of the hot young female translator sort of way that’s both awesome and a bit creepy) puts on her favorite T-shirt

the one with this declaration by Armand Gatti printed on it in red: “Mastering words is subversive and insolent.”

And more to the translation point, there’s a scene about a translation of an Anne Hebert poem:

Monsieur Waterman asked if I had paid attention to the end of the poem: I read it aloud:

D’ou vient donc que cet oiseau fremit
Et tourne vers le matin
Ses prunelles crevees?

“Now, look at the translation,” he said.

F.R. Scott had translated the last line as Its perforated eyes. The translation was faithful and I thought it was appropriate. He had written a second version that was more or less identical. And then a third, very surprising, which ended with the words blinded eyes. The bird, symbol of the heart, no longer had punctured or gouged or perforated eyes: it was quite simply blind. And even if we agree that the meaning of blinded is weaker than that of blind, we might think that the bird was only blinded in a temporary way . . .

It seemed to me that the translator had softened considerably the image that Anne Hebert had used. I was rather shocked.

“He corrected the author,” I said.

“You might say that. But look a little farther . . .”

Reading on, I soon found the explanation: in the tradition of falconry, the hunter does not put out the falcon’s eyes, but merely drops a hood over its head until the moment when he let it fly away to catch its prey. Could he have thought that Anne Hebert didn’t know that detail . . .

And then, we go back into the old man-young woman dynamic when Waterman explains his hypothesis on what F.R. Scott was trying to do:

“In addition to being a poet, Frank Scott was a professor of law. And he was a good fifteen years older than she was. So I imagine him, an old gent with a white beard, taking the beautiful Anne Hebert by the hand and explaining to her that love isn’t dangerous, that she has no reason to be afraid, that her heart is free and unfettered.”

The focus on language, on words and sounds, that runs throughout the book is palpable, but doesn’t really seem to build to much. And occasionally dips down into the patently obvious. Like then ending to this emotionally poignant scene in which Marine relates a moment from her childhood in which her uncle from Connecticut tries to molest her:

The next morning the uncle and his wife left for Connecticut. The name of that state always reminds me of the clattering of a pair of scissors. Because of the last syllable.

I really wanted to be charmed by this novel, but instead it fell far short. The female voice isn’t all that believable (except in a half-fetishized sort of way) and the overall creation isn’t that compelling as a plotted story or as an atmospheric piece. It definitely has its moments, and it’s a very quick, very smooth read . . .

So I’ll end where I began, and restate how important Sheila Fischman has been to the promotion of Quebec literature.

....
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